Adrienne Drobnies’ first book of poetry, Salt and Ashes, was released in April 2019 from Signature Editions. A graduate of the SFU Writer’s Studio, her poetry has appeared in Canadian literary magazines, including The Antigonish Review, Event, Riddle Fence, The Toronto Quarterly, and The Maynard, as well as The Cider Press Review and Sow’s Ear Review in the US, and Popshot in the UK. She is an editor of a collection of poetry in French, Poèmes sur Mesure, by her late husband Alain Fournier. She has a doctorate in chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley and has worked at SFU and the Genome Sciences Centre in Vancouver. Her origins are in Texas and California, and she has spent most of her life in Toronto and Vancouver. Her poetry received honourable mention in the Compton Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the 2015 Vallum Award for poetry. Her long poem “Randonnées” won the 2017 Gwendolyn MacEwen Award for Best Suite by an Emerging Poet and was a finalist for the CBC literary award for poetry.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The first book is always a milestone. I am happy about achieving this goal for myself and having those poems out in the world. I don’t think it’s really changed my life except for the inevitable flurry of activity — launches and readings — connected to the release. I also think it helps me feel more included in the poetry community and more engaged with it.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I know I was writing poetry by age 10 and feeling a strong connection to it. I believe, among other things, it was a place of refuge. I liked writing stories and spent several years working on a novel. I am thinking of picking that up again, but poetry is always my first and deepest love.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Writing can come fast or slow — usually slow and with lots of revision. Sometimes I set out very intentionally on a project. This is what I did with my long poem “Randonnées” that is at the heart of my first book Salt and Ashes.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
So far, I have not thought when writing a poem about it being part of book project, although, once it’s written, I always think about how a poem would fit into a book. Where does a poem begin? That’s the eternal mystery, isn’t it. How did those neurons start firing together? For me, it often begins with a phrase that jumps into my head when I am out walking and far from a desk or computer. Sometimes it’s almost like having a headache and I have to rush somewhere to get it down before I can rest again. A lot of times it begins in fits and starts until it reaches a critical mass.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Readings are sometimes part of my creative process. Even though I may have read a poem out loud to myself many times, when I give a public reading I realize there are things I want to change — line breaks, words or phrases here or there. It’s a great chance for me to get a sense of the right rhythm. Or course, there can always be nerves to a greater or lesser degree when giving a reading, but basically I enjoy giving readings and going to them. I find it funny that when I did scientific presentations I always felt intensely nervous, but from the first time I ever gave a reading I felt at ease and at home — in body and mind.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I want to know what these concerns are but I don’t write out of them. I’ll notice that I’ve incorporated some aspects of language poetry, for example, in my writing, but I’m not setting out to do that. I am more of the asking than answering questions kind of person in my poetry. I try to watch out not to overdo that. I don’t think I’m plugged into the academic world of literature enough to know what the current burning questions are, but the role of technology is one that interests me. I went to a couple of talks/workshops recently on algorithmic and digital poetry. We’re not going out of business yet as writers, but I think there’s a place for technological approaches in stimulating and understanding creativity. I also see as important the issue of how poetry might reach more people and still retain its innovative role in language. Spoken word probably has a place in that. Better education all around wouldn’t hurt.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think there is an urgent need for writers in our culture — poets, journalists, storytellers.
We need to hear the truth of many different experiences, understand and empathize with them as much as possible. We need to know and tell the facts, and to expose falsehoods. I see the role of the writer as inevitably a political one, consciously or not, intentionally or not.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I have found the process of working with an editor to be helpful. A good editor is someone who can push you to make a poem and a book better than you thought it could be. Sometimes these were teachers or mentors making suggestions. Garry Thomas Morse was the poetry editor at Signature, and he was wonderful to work with.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Best advice (to myself) — Go for a walk.
From my husband now — Writing and publication are things that can be done at any age. That success can come at any age is confirmed in the book The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi. I really like the story in this book about Darlene Love. I think it’s important to remember, though, success does not equate to happiness, and to recall Bob Dylan’s line “there’s no success like failure and failure’s no success at all.”
From my late husband when I was struggling with depression — Don’t feel bad about feeling bad and do whatever you can, no matter how small.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
For me, the day begins with meditation. My writing day begins with journaling. I set mornings aside for writing and afternoons for revision, reading and submissions. I try to meet up with another writer at least once a week if I can to write together and share our work.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I’ve learned to be patient and try to feel my own rhythm. There are no ways to trick the gods. You can show up but you can’t really force it. Then I go for a walk (see above). Lately, a good source of inspiration has been the on line course I take with Hoa Nguyen.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
It depends on which home. For my childhood home(s), it was barbecue.
For my adult home, it’s pancakes on Sunday morning and my child’s hair even though she is now grown and lives far from me.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
The biggest single influence has been my lifelong work in science. Others have commented to me on the influence of the natural world in my work. I feel a stronger response to music than to visual art, but both are important to me. I usually don’t see a direct line, though, between those and my writing. In keeping with what Dave McFadden says, I feel the influence more of other writers.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
My most important recent influences are Evelyn Lau, Rhea Tregebov, Betsy Warland, Rachel Rose, Jane Hirshfield, Heather McHugh. Earlier mentors were Libby Scheier and Pier Giorgio Di Cicco. Gwendolyn MacEwen was an important poet for me and so was Adrienne Rich. From earlier eras, poets like Blake, Yeats, Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane had a big influence. So did Raymond Queneau and Louis Aragon in French. I like a lot of South American and Caribbean poets. I love Issa.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
In terms of writing, a second book, naturally. In terms of life, I’d like to spend some time up north and see that part of this country that I barely know.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I guess I already did my other occupation by working as a scientist for so many years. Writing was always a parallel stream in my life, though its flux varied greatly.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I have to answer that I did do something else. I’m glad I had that part of my life, which I also loved. I will say that, unsurprisingly as for many artists, I wasn’t often a good fit with institutions and organizations, though academic ones were the most flexible and best environments for me. I feel much freer and happier devoting myself fully now to my writing. It was time. Maybe it was time a long time ago, but that was in a different life.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Movie(s) - Burning and BlacKKKlansman
The last books of fiction I got excited about were Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders and Chanson Douce by Leila Slimani interested me a lot, and so did Exit West. “Great” is a high standard I tend to reserve for Anna Karenina, The Magic Mountain, Invisible Man, The Golden Notebook, Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter, 100 Years of Solitude, Tropic of Cancer (Henry Miller once sent me a postcard), Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz, Updike’s Rabbit books or anything by Virginia Woolf, Dostoyevsky or Kafka. Infinite Jest is great even if I couldn’t finish it.
19 - What are you currently working on?
A second book — waiting to see what comes.
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